Choosing the Right Mini-Lathe or Mini-Mill for You
The first precision machine tools were small ones—like the lathes used by watch and clock makers in the early 1800s. Since then, the industry has continually demanded larger and more accurate machines, but there are also now many choices for those who need small, precision tools for hobby, prototype, lab, educational and other uses. In the early 1960s, there was really only one small machine that fit the bill. The original Unimat DB200 was inexpensive, offered a big accessory line, and despite the fact that it was not very rigid, still sold tens of thousands of machines and created a market for tabletop machine tools in the home shop. It is no longer available, but since then, many more machines have entered the market from all over the world. They range from very inexpensive machines that are little more than “kits” that will need a lot of tweaking before you could expect to use them for precision work to extremely precise machines made from hardened, ground steel that can cost upwards of $10,000 or more for a tiny manual lathe. Somewhere in between are the machines that really make sense for most people, but when you are just starting out, how do you sort out the myriad of claims from the various manufacturers? There are a few important questions you need to ask, and the answers will help you find the right machine for your needs.
What kind of motor and speed control does it include?
On large machines, operators have a favorite speed where they do most of their work. The machines have plenty of torque so getting the speed exactly right is often not critical, and they rarely turn extremely small sizes where high speeds are needed. Going from 2″ diameter stock to 6″ diameter is only a 3x difference in size. Small machines, however, are often asked to turn a relatively large variety of materials and sizes. One minute you might be turning 1″ diameter stock, and then next, you might have to turn something that is only 0.010″ in diameter. That is a 100x difference in size! Therefore, being able to adjust speed electronically without gear or belt changes easily is a real advantage.
Most tabletop machine tools utilize AC/DC motors. These motors are relatively inexpensive and produce their rated power at high RPM. At low RPM, they are easily stalled. This is usually addressed by adding cumbersome gear and belt arrangements with several speed ranges in order to manually adjust spindle speed while keeping motor speed as high as possible. This is time-consuming, so people often just use the wrong speed rather than make the changes. Some machines are even offered without a motor, so make sure you know what you are getting when you compare prices.
Very few machines offer a DC motor simply because it is more costly, but a DC motor produces its maximum torque at start-up and low speed, which is where you need it for cutting metal. (In machining, it is torque, not horsepower, that you are really concerned with.) It also eliminates the need for gear or belt changes. A DC motor also packs that power into a more compact housing. The low-speed torque of a DC motor and a sophisticated electronic control make belt and gear changes virtually unnecessary, meaning you have full, useable control over the entire speed range with just the turn of a dial. Sherline DC motors also offer externally replaceable motor brushes, making routine maintenance much easier.
Does the machine offer precision control of all axes?
A number of lathes offer a calibrated handwheel only on the crosslide. The carriage is moved by means of a rack gear that offers fast travel but no precision control over your tool position. Some lathes have a lever-actuated tailstock that offers fast movement but offers no precision control of depth. The same goes for a mill with a quill feed on the Z-axis. This speeds up hole drilling but can make accurate depth control difficult if not impossible. Make sure all axes of the lathe or mill you select are driven by precision rolled leadscrews with handwheels calibrated in your choice of true inch (.001”) or metric (.01 mm) increments. Some imports that claim to be inch machines actually have metric leadscrew pitches but handwheels marked in a close approximation in inches. The number of divisions can be an odd amount rather than .050” per rotation on true inch machines or 1 mm on metric machines, making it very hard to keep track of total distance traveled.
Precision rolled threads are also a key to precise travel. Rolled threads are far more accurate than cut threads, although they require a special machine to manufacture them. If a company doesn’t tell you how their threads are formed, they are probably not rolled.
Do you have a choice of how material is held in the headstock and tailstock?
Some inexpensive lathes come with a chuck, but if you need to hold work in collets accurately sized to your part, you are out of luck. A collet adapter sticking out of the chuck with just a few choices of collet sizes is not going to do the job for you. Some lathes that claim to have a fairly large chuck may have such a small hole through the center that you can’t really take advantage of that potential capacity. Also, the chuck may be bolted to the faceplate rather than threaded onto the spindle, so you don’t have the option to change to another kind of chuck easily. This also moves the face of the chuck fairly far out from the end of the spindle, increasing the chance for runout (wobble).
Look for a machine that has a spindle that is threaded on the outside to quickly accept a range of high-quality chucks, including 3- and 4-jaw versions (independent and scrolling) in various sizes. A standard internal spindle taper like a Morse taper also means you can hold drill chucks or other accessories, including mill collets or adapters to hold precision WW (watchmakers’) collets. An ER-16 collet spindle is also preferred by some as an option, so you might want to ask if it is available if that would be more suitable for the task you have in mind for the machine.
Is a heavier machine “better” than a lighter machine?
When removing large amounts of metal quickly, mass and horsepower are important in a big machine. However, when precision is your main objective, rigidity and tactile feedback for a good “feel” for the cut are of primary importance. Cast iron is heavy and cheap. Properly cast, aged and machined or ground, it can be used to produce a very accurate machine. Cheaply cast and machined while still “green,” it can warp before it even gets off the boat from overseas. Scraping in a warped cast iron bed to get it flat again takes a lot of effort and skill. If you have looked at websites devoted to some imported mini-lathes, you may have noted that they are mostly devoted to how to turn the lathe into a usable machine rather than how to use it to make things.
You should demand a machine that is accurate right out of the box. This is particularly true for a beginner because a poor-quality machine may lead you to believe that you don’t have the skill to be a machinist when in reality, it is the machine, not you, that is at fault. Look for a rigid ground steel bed and aircraft grade 6061-T6 aluminum tables. The lathe should have a high-quality cast base with plenty of depth and webbing to keep it rigid while keeping unnecessary weight to a minimum. If both portability and feedback from the cutting process to your fingers on the handwheels are important to you, these are important advantages. How rigid a machine must be is determined by the power of the motor, and for motors in this small size range, the cross-sections and materials used should be engineered to give the optimum rigidity while keeping weight and cost to a minimum. When the weight of the machine exceeds what is needed to make an accurate part, all you are getting is a higher shipping cost and less portability.
What about availability of accessories and replacement parts?
Some imported machines come packaged with a few accessories and a basic threading capacity as part of the base price, but if you want more than this, you are out of luck. You will need not only a choice of basic machines or packages in various levels of completeness but the availability of a complete line of accessories in case your future needs call for them. There should be specialized accessories available so you can complete just about any machine shop job with ease. A well designed threading attachment, for example, offers a far greater range of both metric and inch threads than could ever be offered in a set of built-in gears, and the gears should be hobbed from billet metal, not molded in plastic.
Low cost imported machines arrive by the boatload, but replacement parts are often not available. The same goes for technical support. Whether you purchase a machine through a dealer or directly from the factory, make sure parts and technical support are only a phone call or e-mail away. Make sure also that the machines are designed properly from the beginning, so that the parts that wear out first are the least expensive and easiest to replace.
Are modern upgrades like Digital Readouts and computer control (CNC) available?
Any modern machine tool should be able to be purchased new with these items already installed or upgraded at a later date to include them. Some companies offer this capability, and some don’t. If you think this might be important to you at a later date, be sure to ask if this capability is designed in and available from the factory or if you have to go to search for an aftermarket source for it.
A word about “knock-offs”
When a machine becomes popular, there are often companies that will try to copy it. Their advertising will say it is “Just like the original but less expensive.” It may even look exactly like the original and have published specifications that duplicate the original’s down to three decimal places. The question you should ask is, how did they make the same thing but cut the cost so much? The answer usually lies in the parts you can’t see. Many important features are simply left off, like the ability to rotate the headstock or the ability to adjust preload on the spindle bearings to reduce end play. The bearings themselves may be of a lower class. Backlash adjustment may be eliminated. Threads may be turned, not rolled. Motor power ratings may be claimed at failure loads rather than at continuous duty loads. No technical support or spare parts and few accessories are available. If you expect to do high-quality work, the cheapest tool is rarely the best value in the long run.
Remember that an unskilled operator can still make a bad part on the best, most expensive machine available, but your skills will advance faster and farther if you start out with a machine capable of doing high-quality work right from the start. They say, “It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools,” but even the best craftsman can take his work to a higher level by using better tools. A slightly larger investment up front can assure that as your techniques improve, you have a machine capable of taking you to the highest levels of craftsmanship. If you choose wisely to begin with, you will own a quality tool that will serve you for your lifetime and one that you will be proud to pass on to the next generation of craftsmen.